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The colorful South Carolina State Fair was once black and white.

Game booths were enjoyed by many African Americans at the Palmetto State Fair.
Doug Martin
/
State newspaper archive/Richland Library
Game booths were enjoyed by many African Americans at the Palmetto State Fair.

The Palmetto State Fair was a separate fair for African Americans from 1890 to 1969.

This time of year, South Carolinians love the fun, food and games of the South Carolina State Fair. The air is full of sounds, smells and bright colors. But there was a time when the predominant colors of the fair were just black and white. Those were the days of segregation. For nearly 80 years, African Americans had their own fair, first called the Colored, or Negro, State Fair, and eventually the Palmetto State Fair.

Margaret Dunlap, local history librarian at the Richland Library, said the colored fair started in 1890, after blacks had previously participated in fairs with whites during Reconstruction.

“The Reconstruction era in Columbia provided African Americans with a lot more freedom than they had after the period ended,” she said. “That was around 1878, 1880. During that time, things got a lot more constricted. And then throughout the 20th century, there was just more separation of the races socially, through fear and intimidation that might have kept African Americans from wanting to go to the white fair, or feeling welcome there.

“But the Palmetto State Fair allowed for black entertainers, black schools, black students, black farmers to really mingle, learn from each other and feel free at their own fair and their own organization.”

According to historian Rodger Stroup, author of the state fair history “Meet Me at the Rocket,” “Jim Crow” laws grew during the 1880s and 90s, adding impetus to the creation of a separate African American fair: “They were getting more and more pushed out of the activities at the white state fair, and so they created their own organization in 1890, and they struggled for about 18 years,” said Stroup.

“Sometimes they’d have a state fair, sometimes not. There were internal struggles. Then in 1908 a man named Richard Carroll became the head of it. And he sort of moved it to the next level. And from then until 1969 they had a state fair for African Americans every year except one.”

That year was 1918, when the flu epidemic that swept the world cancelled both state fairs. Stroup said the Palmetto fair also was cancelled during World War II – almost.

“It continued to exist through the war in a limited edition. And then in 1945 they cancelled the fairs, because the federal government had been pushing to do that the whole time because of rationing and everything else.

“So they actually cancelled the fair in 1945 in late July. And then when the Japanese surrendered in early August, they went ahead and ‘uncancelled’ it. Put it back on and went ahead and had it.” But because of the contrariness South Carolina is famous for, said the historian, “we were one of the few state fairs in the country that continued to operate all through the war.”

A versatile race track was a feature few fairgoers now remember, said Dunlap. “The State Fair had horse races involved, and that got a lot of black and white audiences to the fair every year. That same race track was used for demolition derbies, and car racing, and other entertainments that would come. At the Palmetto State Fair, that same… arena would be used for the marching bands and choral exhibitions and school exhibitions. Football games, too. So during the Palmetto State Fair, the Allen (University) and Benedict (College) football game would be held.”

Dunlap said after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 passed, the end of segregation also signaled the end for two separate fairs. “We wanted to end segregation and that was occurring,” she said. “But at the same time, some of these institutions that had served solely the African American community began to see a dwindling number of participants. It just didn’t seem to be fitting in with modern society. And then the last fair was held in 1969.”

Dunlap said the Palmetto fair was seen by many as something from another era by its end. People seemed to be ready to join a modern world.

One thing remains certain, however: after all these years, almost everyone still loves the South Carolina State Fair.

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Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.